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September 2002, Vol. 125, No. 9
Age-adjusted labor force participation rates, 1960–2045Robert F. Szafran
Current labor force participation rates
in the United States, particularly for
women, are very different from what they were in 1960. Among the usual reasons given for the disparity are cultural, economic, and social changes in educational attainment, the person’s age at marriage, childbearing, divorce, retirement, Social Security and pension benefits, and gender role expectations. Had none of these things changed, however, alterations in labor force participation rates would still have been observed, because participation in the labor force varies by age and the age distribution of the population changed significantly during the period in question, due to changes in fertility, migration, and mortality.1 As exceptionally large cohorts of the population move into age categories that have above-average labor force participation rates, the labor force participation rate for the entire population moves up. Similarly, when those large cohorts move into age categories with below-average participation rates, the overall participation rate goes down. The same thing happens in reverse as exceptionally small cohorts move into age categories with above- or below-average participation in the labor force.
The effect of cultural, economic, and social changes on labor force participation could be better assessed if a way of measuring changes in participation were developed that eliminated the effect of demographic shifts in the age structure. One method for eliminating the confounding effect of a changing age distribution on changes in labor force participation is to focus, not on changes in the participation rate of the entire population, but on changes in the participation rate of specific age groups. This approach would examine, for example, how the participation rate of 20-to-24-year-olds changed over time, then how the rate for 25-to-29-year-olds changed, and so on through the age distribution. A difficulty with such a method is that it yields not one summary measure of participation for a society at any single point in time, but rather a group of participation rates—as numerous as the number of age groups into which the population is divided.
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1 Several authors have noted the effect of the changing age structure on labor force participation. Particularly relevant to the analysis in this article are the following works of Howard N Fullerton, Jr.: "Labor force projections: the baby boom moves on," Monthly Labor Review, November 1991, pp. 31–44; "Labor force projections to 2008: steady growth and changing composition," Monthly Labor Review, November 1999, pp. 19–32; and "Labor force participation: 75 years of change, 1950–98 and 1998–2025," Monthly Labor Review, December 1999, pp. 3–12.
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Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey
Related Monthly Labor Review articles
Labor force participation: 75 years of change, 1950-98 and 1998-2025.—Dec. 1999.
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